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DEC 22–JAN 23

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DEC 22–JAN 23 Issue
Special Report Railing Opinion

Visiting the Acropolis Museum

Holger Uwe Schmitt, The Acropolis Museum, 2022.
Holger Uwe Schmitt, The Acropolis Museum, 2022.

Wounded, mutilated, and dismembered by wars, ancient war sculptures—such as these of heroes of Persian, Trojan wars and embattled mythological gods—are perceived by the museum visitors as “romantic” ruins of idealized antiquity, rather than as the horrifying forensic evidence of war’s atrocities and as the masterpieces of war art implicated in cultural perpetuation of such atrocities through their aesthetic sanctification of armed violence.   

The sculptures are at once the artistic creations designed for war glorification, and the horrifying residue of real war destruction. This is the terrible harvest of the art of war idealization (crafted by ancient artists, commissioners, patrons) and of the work of war-making (committed by soldiers, generals, and emperors). Adorning the artistic craft of each detail in what is left of destroyed sculptures, the public seems unaware, or is brushing away, their present physical state and their historical war status.

Looking at sculptures of noble warriors embattled with their dehumanized enemies (such as the cyclops), their arms and limbs heads and wings deeply wounded or chopped of by the real war events, the museum visitors tend to disregard their violent damage. Wishing to be undisturbed in enjoying the art of war idealization, the visitors mentally reconstruct the dismembered sculptures to the original state, rather than think of the terrible reality of war that caused such dismemberment. 

The sculptures’ war damage is also glorified by our “modern cult of monuments” in which we cherish their age value. War scars of mutilated and massacred sculptures are appreciated for such age value but not for their historic value—their art history of war destruction in which they are implicated and of which there are the victims.  

The museum’s display gives a superior importance to the sculptures “artistic value” and distances itself from their historically complex war status.   

The sculptures, however, are both victims of cultural war crimes and of their creators, the artisans of the culture of war.   

Out of “respect” for the sculptures’ aesthetic autonomy the museum prefers to be silent about their complete war story, offering at best the abbreviated and visually discrete information, or relegates any serious reference to it to outside sources.

Such “respectful” distance to the sculptures’ war story reduces the museum role to that of a mere “custodian” of war art heritage, an uncritical, “neutral” conservateur of the treasures of culture and cult of war.

By proxy, these “custodians” render such artifacts culturally culpable for the implicit contribution to war’s perpetuation and its future atrocities—to the new mutilations of artworks, including new works of war art, hence… to their potential acquisition and their museum exhibition.

Such aesthetic anesthesia administered to mutilated sculptures’ exposition shields the museum from an opportunity for inspiring public discussion and critical thinking about the curatorial philosophy and methodology behind the sculptures displays.   

In a time of war, a return to policies of militarization, and the global revival of the cult and culture of war, the public must be allowed and be encouraged to think of the mutilated war sculptures’ display in terms of its present-day meaning and their value as our historic witness in envisaging and building our better future.   

Unfortunately, the potential thoughts and discussion on the meaning of war sculptures’ war destruction, is replaced by a museum’s pristine and hygienic atmosphere reserved solely for the contemplation of the “sublime” effect of ancient war art and for the “philosophical reflection” on the eternal “inevitability of war,” falsely believed to be an organic if not vital part of “human nature.”   

War’s overwhelming presence, so evident in the physical conditions of the sculptures, is numbed and aestheticized through the strategies of lofty display combined with a museum’s deliberate avoidance or reduced presence of historical narrative regarding the circumstance of sculptures’ horrific damage and destruction.    

In this situation, artistic, idealization, heroization, sanctification and cultivation of war as well as war destruction, and war itself—are not questioned but taken for granted.  

 Even if the mutilated or decapitated sculptures were physically capable to speak and testify as war witnesses and war victims, they would not be able to find words, or speak at all.  

Like most of those who are at once victims and witnesses—especially when testifying to war crimes—cannot speak clearly and justly, for themselves.  

They remain speechless because they have been so traumatized by the very crimes of which they may be asked to testify. They are left with no words for their overwhelming war experience. Many choose to remain silent because every word that they may say can be taken against them by those who wish to blame them—as works of war art—for their own war suffering and destruction. One, of course, must not “blame” the war sculptures for their war destruction but should put the blame on war itself and on the war beliefs that these sculptures were made to promote.  

One shall not accept these sculptures’ silence as their noble and natural state of being but recognize it as a posttraumatic stress symptom caused by war violence and by the violence of people at war.  

Because the sculptures’ condition and the museum display design made them silent, one must not be silent about their silence.  

When speaking about the sculptures’ condition and their present situation, we must focus on their war wounds, war trauma, their enslavement in war culture, on the museum’s “neutral” silence about their war experience, the public’s lack of compassion about their massacred bodies and, importantly, about the humiliating display of the sculptures’ mutilated bodies in the museum.   

Concerned curators, artists, writers, trauma therapists, social and psychological support teams and others are the ones who can speak the best as spokespersons, narrators, and experts- for such speechless sculptures. They may be able to find historical, philosophical, and poetic words of truth when testifying on behalf of the silent traumatized sculptures: speak of enforced on them ideological role, of their war witness, their war suffering, of their posttraumatic condition and existential situation.   

In response to their speechless condition, to attend and assist their trauma recovery, for our own psychological and moral health and toward the war free future—one may engage the sculptures themselves, the museum public, the curators, war veterans and war refugees (with the help of trauma therapists, war historians, mythologists, cultural and social researchers, philosophers, art restores, media producers and others) in the special un-war and antiwar group projects: cultural, artistic, and educational.

The war damaged war sculptures are double war veterans.

Returning from today’s wars, soldiers and war refugees are double war veterans as well.

They are the veterans of the culture of war idealization and of the art of military propaganda that misguided them with false patriotic slogans and promises to support or join the army and go to war.

They are also the veterans of the anti human, unjust, and traumatic experience of war that damaged them physically, morally, and psychologically.

Because of their profound experience with war propaganda and of war reality, they are most prepared to speak on behalf of the war sculptures—their artistic service in war idealization and their suffered bodily and emotional wounds.

Sculptures’ silence speaks to our own traumatic war and war related silence.    

Most of us, if not all of us, are emotionally and morally affected by our own and our parents and grandparents' lived war experience. Equipped with such secondary war memory—with understanding that for us it will be impossible to fully understand what they went through—we should listen to the sculptures’ silence and speak for them about their war experience.  

We must also ask if we can share with them our own primary and secondary war witness and war trauma.  

One must speak on behalf of the silence of the wounded, war mutilated, and dismembered sculptures especially now, in time of Russia’s military aggression, the proliferation of nationalistic chauvinism, of the revival of militarism and the cult of war, Russia’s repeated threat of the use of the atomic weapons, and on the seventy seventh anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.  

It is the ethical imperative to think of war mutilated and dismembered war sculptures’ display as a site for educational and cultural un-war and antiwar projects.

The sculptures’ display must become a part of an active discursive monument to the unacceptability of war, war mentality, war-glorifying art and the culture and cult of war.

It should function as point of outcry, outrage, and appeal for putting an end to wars—the site and the reference to the proactive work toward irreversible global war abolition.  


Krzysztof Wodiczko

Krzysztof Wodiczko is an artist. He is renowned for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

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